There were footsteps in the hall, sharp and clipping and growing steadily louder.
     Jaysh jumped, backside numb against the floor, knees tight and achy, jaw sore from vine. But despite his sudden start, he found that his eyelids failed to open. Not because he was too weary to open them, but because they’d never been closed. Rather than a jump from sleep to wakefulness, Jaysh’s spasm of movement had been a transition from numb complacency to a dizzying self-awareness.
     He turned to the door, listening to the footfalls as they bore down upon him. Had he really sat here on this god-awful floor all night? Had he really stared vacuously at the floorboards—acids in his stomach churning and boiling and threatening to spill into his lap—for the entire night?
     The thin yellow line forming between the shutters seemed to imply that he had. It looked a lot like the makings of dawn’s glow and would go a long way towards explaining why someone was venturing down the outer corridor in a direct route for his room.
     Outside the threshold of his doorway, the footsteps ceased.
     “Young Jaysh?” a voice called, one sounding remarkably like General Branmore. “Young Jaysh.” There came the soft rap of arthritic knuckles against decorative trim, followed by, “Young Jaysh, are you presentable?”
     Jaysh considered telling him he was not, but decided against such a ploy. Since he hadn’t locked the door—there was no need, really, not when you had a giant crystal bodyguard ever at the ready—his deception wouldn’t keep Serit out for long.
     Thinking of his annoying diamond protector, Jaysh glanced down at his lap, then around at the room, searching the dark spaces beneath the dressing table and wardrobe. He hadn’t any possessions to scatter—in his eagerness to escape the old king’s chamber, he had left them in the anteroom—but it did look as though the kryst hadn’t lost its touch when it came to frightening away his pet.
     By high chest of drawers, pressed back against the wall as far back as it could go, Jaysh’s shadow stood watching.
     “Young Jaysh,” Serit called. “Are you still in there?”
     The woodsman did not answer. He was trying to remember the door opening or closing last night, trying to recall the huge glittering statue lumbering inside. He could not, as fate would have it—even with his eyes staring glassily at the floor—but apparently it had happened. By some mystical, unexplainable means, the sparkling brute had infiltrated the room, approached his position on the floor, and frighten away his pet.
     Jaysh knew he ought to be glaring at the kryst, but he found he had no energy. He felt as empty and nerveless as he had the previous night, probably the consequence of sitting on the floor and stared at the planks.
     From the entryway, the general rapped his knuckles a second time and said, “Young Jaysh, are you decent?”
     Jaysh didn’t know what dee-sent meant, but it was clear that Serit wanted him to answer, so he lifted his chin and invited the old man inside, initiating with his tongue a very long day of nightmares and unpleasantries. 
     Jaysh didn’t realize this, of course, not with the fluffy white seeds still wafting back and forth and distracting him from his thoughts. He could hear the old man making sounds, could see his lip-hair moving in time to the sounds, but they were still only sounds and didn’t hold any meaning in his cluttered, fluttering body.
     He kept waiting for Serit to take notice of his vacuous stare, but the old man never did. Jaysh found that if he nodded his head when the general paused between one series of sounds and the next, the general went right on talking like everything was fine. For Jaysh, this proved to be both beneficial and detrimental.
     The benefit came as Jaysh managed to conceal his state of fugue from the general and, thus, avoid a whole litany of personal questions pertaining to his health. The detriment, however, came as the cottony seeds of confusion interfered with the woodsman’s ability to connect with his feelings. For example, as Serit explained the horrible scene scheduled that afternoon, detailing both the old king’s interment and the new king’s coronation, the woodsman’s hazy state of disassociation staved off his horror. As had been the case last night, Jaysh experienced that same queer sensation of knowing without feeling; the general’s words painting pictures in his mind and Jaysh’s apathy dulling the affect that ensued.
     Consequently, it was not until much later—well after the woodsman had been bathed and groomed and led up to the Hill—that the first of these negative emotions broke through the wall of his indifference.
     Looking back, he’d have to say it felt like waking from a dream. He was standing on the Hill at the time—a wad of vine in his cheek, the cat-thing in his arms (she’d been waiting on him beneath the archway in the fence)—and the invisible scales of shock simply fell away from his heart. One moment, he was very aware of the warm heaviness pulling him towards the ground, and the next he was aware of nothing but his surroundings, as if he’d been staring at a portrait of himself all day and, all of a sudden, someone ripped it away and replaced it with a painting of his worst nightmare, one in which the sun blazed bright, the sky shown blue, and the whole of Onador was smashed inside the perimeter of the Hill.
     There were people everywhere—Everywhere!—people, people, and more people. Most standing among the tombs and headstones—desecrating who knows how many gravesites with their bare and dirty feet—but quite a few more were smashed against the outside of the Hill, pressed against the fencing and packed around the arches, shoulder-to-shoulder and practically stacked on top of one another. Men with their hats held at their sides or clutched to their chests, women with their hankies out and dabbing at their eyes or noses, members of both genders with enormous bulges in their cheeks, all of them looking weary and numb and in need of some sleep.
     Needless to say—based upon his proclivity for the great outdoors and his abhorrence of civilization—Jaysh had never seen such a gathering of people, and certainly not one so bleary-eyed and downtrodden. Staring at it, he was reminded of what his dear old friend, Iman, used to say when they happened upon someone so glum.
     What’s wrong? the captain would ask, not a trace of feeling in his tone. Someone run over your puppy? But insensitive or not, that was exactly what Jaysh saw as he looked out from the center of that moping conglomeration; a whole lot of puppies crushed and a whole lot of heavy faces. It couldn’t have been worse. Because if there was one thing that bothered Jaysh more than crowds, it was emotions. And here he had both! Not only was he trapped on all sides by a crowd of gawking onlookers, but he was trapped on all sides by a crowd of sad-faced onlookers, a whole living wall of unhappiness as far as the eye could see, which was quite ways up here on the Hill.
     Thankfully, the collective eye of the miserable-looking crew did not appear to be resting on him, but on a point directly ahead of him, a point where Jaysh was steadily becoming aware of someone speaking. He turned his head to face the disembodied voice and found a man he knew. The very man, in fact, that had briefed him this morning on his role in the services. At the time, the man hadn’t been wearing his officer’s attire—feathery helmet and shoulder plates, olive-green pants with complementary chain mail—but he had been sporting the medals.
     Jaysh remembered staring at the medals when he grew bored with staring at the man’s profuse lip hair. Lip hair that was, once again, bouncing up and down as it spewed forth its message. And even though Jaysh couldn’t hear every word of the message, and had only marginal understanding of the words he could hear, he understood that this was the old king’s eulogy.
     If the disconsolate crowd of onlookers hadn’t tipped him off, there was, of course, the long wooden crate in front of the general and fresh mound of soil behind. The crate had been adorned with precious jewels and bobbles and the soil had been covered with potted flowers and decorative plants, but Jaysh could still see them. Just as he could see the twelve-hands of empty space disappearing beneath the heavy box, held at bay by two thin planks of wood jutting out to either side of the coffin.
     Once Serit finished with his encouraging speech about the old king’s life and once the mob of rueful people were escorted from the Hill, the groundskeeper and his men would finish what they started last night. They would slide the slats out from under the coffin, drop the coffin in the hole, and then fill the hole with dirt.
     Guess it’s like goin’ to the outhouse, Jaysh thought as he studied the carefully piled soil. Guess some things yeh just doan’ do in public.
     But if that were true, then someone must have forgotten to tell General Branmore, because he was over there talking about the hole and the soil, telling everyone about the brief and special journey from the cradle to grave. At the moment, he was detouring from this special journey to discuss the properties of the Raya Amulet—detailing how it had been extinguished and reignited for the past hundred generations—but there had been parts about the grave in there as well.
     Jaysh heard him say, “As old kings wither and new kings rise, the light of the Raya blinks on and off above them, twinkling like a distant purple star in the eternal dark of night.” Listening to this, Jaysh didn’t know what to make of that horrible bit of verbiage, aside from the fact that it had painted a disturbing picture on the window of his mind, one he wished to smash with a hammer and never see again.
     The image was of a line of men walking through the Sway, a line of old men waddling from left to right and gradually disappearing over the hills to the east. It was nighttime, he noticed, and the prairie was black. But as is the case in most dreams—those during the day as well as at night—he could see the men clearly, their hunched frames, their long gowns, the heavy stupid crowns poised on their heads.
     He could also see the light above the kings, the one hovering about treetop-height instead of resting parallel with the moon, a tiny purple pinprick in the ever-present gloom. There were additional stars dotting the universe above—muted flecks of white resting at the normal altitude for a celestial body—but it was the red-blue of the lower star that held the woodsman attention. He watched it blinking on and off in the night sky of forever, watched it counting the seemingly endless supply of old men passing along below.
     Jaysh shook his head at the image, willing it from his mind and nearly falling over in the process, the residual effect of having not slept or eaten since Serit collected him in the Shun. In the end, though, the near fall had been a small price to pay for scraping the image from his mental canvas. In fact, had the awful image persisted, he was half-tempted to land face-first on a grave marker and open a fissure in his skull. At the site of the grave, though, the historian-slash-general was moving on to his next touching analogy and Jaysh was spared the pain of altering his frontal lobe. Or so he thought.
     The general reached towards one of his retainers and retrieved a very thick and leather-bound tome, the sort that might have elicited a soft groan of despair from his audience had the occasion not been so somber. But somber or not, the woodsman’s shoulders slumped a little as he watched Serit wrestling with the book.
     We’re gona be here til harvest, he thought.
     But as it turned out, the general fumbled with the many bookmarks sprouting from its pages, opened it to the chapters in the back, and read only a brief passage from the tome.
     To every thing there is a season, he read, a time to every purpose under Glory…a time to mourn…and a time to rejoice.
     Jaysh stood there stunned. The passage had been read and not only was it brief, but he had no desire to crack open his brainpan. For that matter, he found himself nodding in agreement with the brief narrative, finding that it appealed to him a lot more than the imagery of the purple Raya blinking in the night sky. What was more, it seemed like he’d heard those words before, though he couldn’t for the life of him remember where. Serit had prefaced the passage by referring to some famous prophet out of some holy text, but Jaysh had always been horrible with names and places.
     He was good with faces, even better with things, but tell him a person’s name and it was like the words passed right through him. If he had to guess, he’d have said the passage came from the old fellow whose bearded mug had been chiseled on the four temples of the city. Jaysh couldn’t remember setting foot in those places—even back in the days when they’d been open—but it seemed like the old fellow’s name was L’bontus or F’tonkus or something like that.
     Regardless of where Jaysh had heard the passage or who had spoken it, the passage itself had worked its magic and Jaysh had come away with a greater understanding of the Raya’s purpose. It was almost like a mental Raya had lit up inside his head and illuminated the truth. The stone was not a thing of evil, but a thing of wonder, just like the inner workings of the heart were a thing of wonder, which—unless he was sorely mistaken—was what Serit was saying. The stone was not a timepiece for measuring the king’s life, but an emotional beacon for queuing the people of Jashandar, fading for them to mourn, rekindling for them to cheer.
     No problem, then, Jaysh thought, relief bubbling from his core. We hang that there rock out one’a the winduhs, let folk know what’s what with their feelin’s, an’ everythin’s right as rain an’ fine as pai—
     Serit stopped talking and silence rolled out of the prairie. The woodsman snapped out his thoughts and fixed his eyes on the speaker, finding that the speaker’s sleepy gaze appeared to be directed at him. Jaysh stopped chewing and looked hurriedly to his right and left, feeling certain the old historian was staring at one of the many people crowded to either side of him. But the people to either side, Jaysh was disconcerted to find, were also staring at him. In fact, it appeared as though everyone on the Hill was staring at him, every bug-eyed, desperate-looking, sad-sack. It was almost like he was supposed to be doing something, but that just couldn’t be.
     When Serit had met with him this morning, he never said one banning thing about the woodsman participating in the ceremony. Jaysh would accompany Reets and Gariel to the Hill and then he would listen to the eulogy like everyone else. There had been no mention of additional duties or responsibilities. He was just supposed to show up like he had the previous night when Serit and Iman had found him in the…
     Jaysh’s eyes shot back to the general, the man whose eyes were suddenly preoccupied with the pile of dirt. Had that old coot done it again? Had the filthy liar tricked him into another mess like he had the night before? Jaysh made another nervous scan of the ever-staring mob—kids on headstones, women on fence posts, men peaking around shoulders—and thought that he had.
     Behind him, something like a wooden peg poked Jaysh in the love-handles and he looked down in time to see the gnarled finger prod him a second time. He followed the offensive finger to its owner and found the halfling nodding adamantly towards the casket.
     Jaysh shook his head at the disfigured man, wondering what in the Pit he could be pointing at. Well, he knew what he was pointing at. He just didn’t know why the adviser felt compelled to involve him. Jaysh had already seen the old king laying in his smooth mahogany box, arms carefully folded, legs pulled straight, face doctored and painted so that he didn’t look near as ghastly as he had the night before. But again, what did that have to do with him? There didn’t appear to be anything left to do except lower the man down and cover him up, and the last Jaysh checked they had a whole platoon of laborer for that nasty little chore.
     “G’on, now,” Reets whispered, giving him another rabbit punch to the side. “G’on an’ take it.”
     Jaysh shifted Zeph to the side and turned so Reets could see his face, convinced the twisted little man had somehow missed the furrows on his brow or the set of his jaw. The twisted little man, however, paid the look no mind and gave him another not-so-gentle nudge, shooing him towards the coffin.
     Guts churning with dismay, Jaysh turned and surveyed the contents of the casket one more time, checking to see if something had materialized from thin air while he’d been staring at the halfling. As he suspected, everything was the same. It was still just the old king lying flat on his back, shiny black robes spread across his body, stunning white lilies lining both sides of the box, dazzling ruby rings sparkling from his fingers.
     Beside him, Reets said,  “Son, we ain’t goin’ nowheres ‘til yeh fetch it out, so yeh best get over there an’ start a-fetchin, jus like Serit tol’ yeh.”
     Jaysh made another look to the general—who was still scrutinizing the many clods of dirt piled behind the coffin—and said, “Wha’d he tell me?”
     “Wha’d he—” Reets’ voice caught in his throat and, although Jaysh didn’t look down, the ill-tempered halfling must have been consulting the advisers to either side because, shortly thereafter, a new voice emerged by Jaysh’s ear.
     “Jaysh dear, you have to retrieve the Raya Amulet from your father.” The voice belonged to Mums, her rich and creamy tones unmistakable in the silence. “It is not bound behind his neck, so you need only reach in and lift it from his—”
     And after that, Jaysh remembered only the yelps of surprise from the advisers and the gasps of alarm from the crowd as he bolted for the archway, bodies bouncing to either side, tombstone ricocheting off his shins, hands and fingers tearing at his clothes.
     Eventually, one set of fingers yanked so hard that Zeph dropped from of his grasp. Jaysh screamed her name and scrambled down for her, but it was too late. She’d no sooner hit the ground and she was gone, vanishing in the crowd like a bolt of black lightening. And even had he seen which direction she’d gone, he wouldn’t have been able to pursue her, not with the various sets of muscled hands gripping him by the arms and dragging him towards the grave.
     One of the draggers—someone who sounded a lot like Mums, though it was difficult to tell over the general murmur of disapproval—said, “Jaysh dear, relax. You have to relax for me, okay? Can you do that? I’ll get the stone, but you have to calm down.”
     Then a sea of faces was swimming before him and he thought he saw everyone he’d ever know passing before his eyes—Iman’s long black locks and clean-shaven stare, Gariel’s pointed orange hair and burning look of fury, Brine’s silly-looking braid and ridiculous expression of shock—but as quickly as he’d seen them, they had vanished back inside the crowd. 
     “Hold him. Hold him steady,” the titan’s voice called, followed shortly by a flash of black ribbon to either side of Jaysh’s face and the feel of silky straps sliding around his ears and pressing against his neck. Someone was tying them behind his head—someone with a pair of shaggy hands that most definitely belong to a titan—and then the space below his beard began to glow, the color of lilacs smoldering in a field, the force of the sun festering behind the mountains.
     Something like a lead nut thumped against his chest and Jaysh tilted his head forward. His arms and legs were still held firmly in check, but his head remained free and unrestrained and it was with no effort at all that he lowered it to the stone at his collar and watched the light leaking from its core.
     Lightheadedness overcame him and suddenly he felt as weak as an infant, like he used to feel when he was a boy and had bitten off too much vine, his body sagging in the sturdy arms of his captors, his knees buckling, his head lolling.
     Around him, the air rang with startled cries, but as the darkness slowly took him, he remembered peering down at the same dull light that had bathed the face of the old king and thinking to himself, This is it. This is the end’a everythin. No more Fish Day, no more Hunt day, no more Scout or Hike Day. It’s all over with, all the floatin through the water, all the sleepin on the Hill, all the nappin by the river…
     And then he knew nothing.